Chicken in every pot

Sallie Satterthwaite's picture

Just about the time you’re convinced that your editor doesn’t read your stuff, he chides you for miscrediting a quotation and sends you back to the dictionary. No wonder I sometimes “forget” to copy him when I send my column in.

But a “misassigned” quotation in last week’s Pulitzer-worthy epic about armadillos caught his eye. This is one of those situations in which something is defined not by what it is, but by what it isn’t.

It would seem that I put the expression “A chicken in every pot” into the mouth of Depression era President Herbert Hoover, and he never said it. The computer makes it too easy to read a line or two and jump to conclusions. Or you don’t even read the whole article, trusting your memory. A pitfall of mine, for sure.

When I googled the “chicken” quote I was surprised how relatively few entries there are for it. And many of them are entries using the hapless fowl as an analogy by turning a noun into a verb, as in “chicken out.” Or “playing chicken” – being taunted for not engaging in foolish behavior, like driving into a head-on collision.

One source calls the “chicken in every pot” quote “one of the most misassigned in American political history.” Times were hard in those days, so a promise of food on the table must have seemed cruel to families whose children went to bed hungry.

According to the US History Encyclopedia, “A chicken in every pot” became the tagline of a 1928 campaign advertisement bragging on the Republican Party’s ability to bring in a time of prosperity, but was not spoken by then-candidate Hoover.

Just for the record, the other Depression era presidents were identified as Warren G. Harding, Calvin Coolidge, and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. If someone had asked me before I researched it, I think I would have said the words were FDR’s.

In a vain attempt to find more chicken references, I rummaged through a shelf full of word books, but netted only more of the same: “A chicken in every pot” was not a Herbert Hoover quotation.

That’s like saying a certain freelance columnist did not write, “The gentle little spring chicken is sweet and adorable above all its kindred poultry. It is innocent and guileless as Bellini’s angels, dreamlike and strange as Botticelli’s.” Elizabeth Robins Pennell, an American food writer, wrote that; I didn’t.

So, we’ve muddied the water by letting our eye drift across a page of “chicken” references. I’m reading fellow wordsmith Roy Blount Jr.’s 2008 Alphabet Juice, a random-appearing collection of words and how they came into the language.

He wrote that when he was asked on live radio what his favorite word is, he wanted to avoid clichés and say something unexpected. He blurted out, “Chicken,” because it has a “k” in it. The word is full of emotive and fundamental qualities like schmaltz (chicken fat), chickenskin (goose bumps), gizzard (uh, gizzard).

Chicken does have a certain pejorative, too. Consider “dumb cluck” and “Chicken Little.”

We’ve worn this out. Bottom line: “A chicken in every pot” was a Republican promise of better days ahead in 1928, but was not from a Hoover speech. It purportedly added, “And a car in every backyard, to boot.”

According to the Internet reference, my Bartlett’s Familiar Quotations and The Dictionary of Clichés by James Rogers say it is “reported” that Henri IV (King of France from 1589 to 1610) said, “I want there to be no peasant in my realm so poor that he will not have a chicken in his pot every Sunday.”

And there you have it.

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